The Story of Isaac Brock: Hero, Defender and Saviour of Upper Canada/28
It was the crackling of the grenadiers' muskets, the bellowing of Vrooman's big gun, the cannonade of the twenty-four-pounders of the Lewiston batteries, the roar of the eighteen-pounder in the British redan, and the streak of crimson light from the long line of beacons which rent the sky from Fort Erie to Pelham Heights, that had wakened the citizens of Niagara and aroused Brock from his brief repose.
Captain Wool, of the 13th U.S. regulars—Van Rensselaer being wounded in six places—hurried his men under the shelter of the overhanging rocks, keeping up an intermittent fire, and waited for reinforcements. For almost two hours this desultory firing continued. With the cessation of the storm and arrival of broad daylight, six more boats attempted to reach the Queenston landing. One boat was sunk by a discharge of grape from Dennis's howitzer; another, with Colonel Fenwick, of the U.S. artillery, was swept below the landing to a cove where, in the attack by Cameron's volunteers that followed, Fenwick, terribly wounded, was, with most of his men, taken prisoner. Another boat drifted under Vrooman's, and was captured there, while others, more fortunate, landed two additional companies of the 13th, forty artillerymen and some militia. The shouts of the fighters and screams of the wounded were heard by the[Pg 148] hundreds of spectators who were parading the river bank at Lewiston, all ready to witness "the humiliation of Canada."
General Van Rensselaer had commanded that the "Heights had to be taken." Wool, a gallant soldier, only twenty-three, suffering from a bullet that had passed through both his thighs—no superior officer coming to his support—volunteered for the duty. He expressed his eagerness to make the attempt. Gansfort, a brother officer of Wool's, had been shown by a river guide a narrow, twisting trail, used at times by fishermen, leading to the summit. This he pointed out to Wool as a possible pathway to the Heights, where a force of determined men might gain the rear of the British position. Wool, at the same time, had also been informed that Williams, hitherto on the Heights, had been ordered to descend the hill to assist Dennis—which was Brock's first command on reaching the redan. Followed by Van Rensselaer's aide, who had orders "to shoot every man who faltered," Wool at once commenced the ascent, leaving one hundred of his men to protect the landing.
Picked artillerymen led the way. Concealed by rock and thicket, and unobserved by the British—the trail being regarded as impassable—they reached the hill-top, only thirty yards in rear of the solitary gun in the redan. The noise of their movements was drowned by the crash of the batteries, which reduced Hamilton's stone house to ruins and drove Crowther and his small gun out of range. The shells from the enemy's mortars rained upon the village, and his field-pieces subjected the gardens and orchards of Queenston to a searching inquisition.[Pg 149]
On reaching the summit, Wool, when the last straggler had arrived, formed his men, without losing a minute, and emerging from ambush, fired a badly-aimed volley at the astonished Brock and his eight gunners, and with a wild shout rushed down upon the redan.
When the United States flag was raised over the gun, which Wool, to his deep chagrin, found spiked, the troops at Lewiston realized that the battery had been taken. Their courage returning, they rushed to the boats below, hoping to participate in a victory which, while hitherto a question in their minds, now seemed beyond all doubt.
Brock, on regaining the bottom of the slope, seeing that the main attack was to be made at Queenston, sent Captain Derenzy with a despatch to Sheaffe at Fort George.
"Instruct Major Evans," he wrote, "to turn every available gun on Fort Niagara, silence its batteries, and drive out the enemy, for I require every fighting man here; and if you have not already done so, forward the battalion companies of the 41st and the flank companies of militia, and join me without delay."
Mounting his horse, he galloped to the far end of the village. Here he held a hurried consultation with the few officers present, and despatched Macdonell to Vrooman's to bring up Heward's Little York volunteers at the double. He then instructed Glegg to order Dennis, with the light company of the 49th, less than fifty strong, and Chisholm's company of the York militia, to join him, and also to recall Williams and his detachment. When these arrived he took command.[Pg 150]
"Captain Williams," said he, "how many men do you muster?"
"Seventy, sir, of all ranks," replied Williams; "forty-nine grenadiers and Captain Chisholm's company of volunteers."
"We must make the attempt, then," said the General, "to turn the enemy's left flank on the Heights, and this can only be done by a round-about way." Then, as Dennis joined him, he said, with a shade of vexation on his face, "It is a waste of time lamenting mistakes, but the overlooking of that pathway was a serious thing. The re-taking of the redan must be attempted at all hazards. It is the key, you see, to our position. If we wait for all our reinforcements the task will only be greater, as it will give the enemy time to establish himself in force, and when he drills out the spiked gun, the odds against us will be greater still."
Then, after a pause, "We must try and regain that gun without a moment's delay. It will be hot work, and means a sacrifice, but it is clearly our duty. Macdonell cannot be long. How are your men?"
"Somewhat fagged, sir," replied Dennis, "and a bit hippish. We've had a trying time, but they are ready to follow you."
It has been truly said of Isaac Brock that he never allowed a thought of self-preservation or self-interest to affect for one instant his conception of duty. He was blind at this moment to all personal considerations. He made no effort to shelter himself behind any plausible[Pg 151] excuse that would have been gratefully seized by the timid or calculating man, or to fence with his duty. His consistency was sublime. "His last moments were in clear keeping with his life and his belief." "He who thinks In strife To earn a deathless fame, Must do, nor ever care for life."
The little band of heroes fell into line, while their brother hero addressed them.
"Men of the 49th," said Brock, "and my brave volunteers, I have heard of your work this morning, and the trying circumstances under which you have been fighting. Now, my lads, as you know, a large body of the enemy has stolen a march on us. They have taken our gun, it is true, but they will find it spiked! It is our duty to re-take it. Be prepared for slippery footing. Use every bit of shelter, but when we make the final rush give the enemy no time to think. Pour in a volley; fire low, and when it comes to in-fighting, use the bayonet resolutely and you have them beaten. I know I can depend upon you.... There is a foreign flag flying over a British gun. It must not stay there.... Don't cheer now, men, but save your breath and follow me."
There was a cheer, notwithstanding.